Last year in the Pennzoil 400 by Jiffy Lube at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it appeared Brad Keselowski had the stronger car in the closing laps. After the field cycled through late cautions, he passed teammate Joey Logano on Lap 240 for the lead.
Keselowski was on a roll: coming off a victory the week previous at Atlanta Motor Speedway and entering as the most recent winner in Vegas, he was set to establish himself as the reigning King of the Cookie Cutters.
But four laps after taking the lead, Keselowski almost crashed. That handed the lead back to Logano. Kez didn’t fade far and finished less than a quarter second behind.
Team Penske finished 1-2, which is a large part of the reason Logano is another of our Four Drivers to Watch this week. It was the second time in the last six Vegas races that these two drivers battled for the win. They also beat the field in 2016, but on that occasion Keselowski was victorious.
For Keselowski, his 2016 triumph is part of a nine-race streak of Vegas top-10s. Three of those were victories, one other is a runner-up finish, and two of those results are third-place finishes. He has not finished worse than seventh since 2012 and his top-10 streak boasts an average of 3.2. Keselowski’s last three attempts at Vegas ended in a first, second, and third. Even if he slips another position this week, he will be comfortably inside the top five.
Vegas is certainly unique. The track added progressive banking in 2006 that allows for multiple grooves and more side-by-side racing. Still, one of the other factors that should be considered when NASCAR visits a doglegged 1.5-mile track is how drivers fare on the other courses. In total, there are 10 races on this track type each year and even though each has different characteristics for the driver, the teams that perform well on one typically run well on all.
Keselowski was almost perfect on this track type in 2018. He earned seven top-10s and another pair of top-15s in 10 races as well as a fifth at Homestead – a true oval that also has progressive banking. But he was uneven on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks last year with five top-10s and five results outside the top 15. He finished 18th at Homestead to end the season and did not have a very welcoming Daytona 500 last week.
Relatively slow speeds in practice could give players pause, but the driver of the No. 2 car is not always dominant at Vegas. Last fall, Keselowski had an Average Running Position of only 13.7, but he managed to finish third.
In route to his second-place finish in this race last year he posted an Average Running Position of 7.1, which was only fifth-best in the field. Logano’s 3.5 and Kevin Harvick’s 2.9 were much better.
When Keselowski won the fall 2018 race, he had an Average Running Position of 6.3. Again Logano was better with a 3.8; Martin Truex Jr. had a 3.3.
Keselowski finds speed when he needs it. While a lot of the credit for that can be placed at crew chief Paul Wolfe’s feet – and after the off-season crew chief swap the dynamics are different – his new chief Jeremy Bullins has last year’s noteb0ook at his disposal and his former driver Ryan Blaney swept the top five in 2018 and finished fifth last fall in the South Point 400.
Team Penske could easily finish 1-2-3 this week and Keselowski’s experience will help lead the way.
Career Average Finish: 11.6 in 13 starts (ranked seventh)
2019 South Point 400: 3
2019 Pennzoil 400: 2
2018 South Point 400: 1
2018 Pennzoil 400: 6